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Japan Diary

March 5, 2021

Biden will not bring the US-Japan relations back to the pre-Trump era

(This article was originally published on the site of The English-Speaking Union of Japanhttps://www.esuj.gr.jp/english/)

There are many in Japan, too, who feel relieved that Trump has gone. The former President had made boorish speeches, such as "Increase the Host Nation Support, or we'll pull out the US troops", although that was in fact his idiosyncratic way of doing "transaction", and Japan managed to maintain close communication both at the leaders' and working levels.

Now the Japanese government seems to think that a "normal" administration has finally returned to the US, and we can simply go back to the way of dealing with the US before the Trump era. The fact that Prime Minister Suga, who had been busy just dealing with the tasks as they came along during his rather long 8-year-term as a Chief Cabinet Secretary, has not had a clear vision about the future of Japan, makes the matter worse. A worn-out mantra of the "importance of Japan-US alliance" is being repeated to the new Biden Administration and Mr. Suga apparently feels complacent just "reaffirming" what the US has been saying for a long time, that is, "the Japan-US Security Treaty is applied to the Senkaku Islands (islands in the middle of the East China Sea, over which China claims sovereignty)".

On the other hand, unlike the Trump Administration which considered diplomatic relations as nothing more than "deals", the Biden Administration is trying to map out a far-sighted strategy. But the strategy is slightly different from the one of the Obama Era. For example, it used to be the case that in view of the critical importance of maintaining stability in the Western Pacific, the highest priority was given to the partnership with Japan, which was then the world's No. 2 economic power and provided military bases essential to the US Force's deployment. However, China is now exerting its influence to change both the economic and military frameworks around the Western Pacific, and the US preoccupation is how to deal with China. Japan has become a dispensable pawn in the game for that purpose and the US wants Japan to defend itself as best it can.

In this context, we can draw a lot of hints from the Foreign Affairs article written in early January by Kurt Campbell (a former Assistant Secretary of State), who has been appointed as Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs, a newly established post at the National Security Council. He claims that China's rise both in economic and military aspects is threatening the balance and values in this region, as seen in its South China Sea island building, East China Sea incursions, conflict with India, threats to invade Taiwan, and internal repression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and economic coercion directed against Australia.

Bearing in mind that China has invested in anti-access/area-denial weapons (including supersonic "carrier-killer" missiles), he advocates that the US should move away from its singular dependence on aircraft carriers and invest in new weapon systems such as long-range cruise and ballistic missiles equipped with conventional explosive warheads, unmanned carrier-based strike aircraft and underwater vehicles, mid-range guided-missile submarines, hypersonic assault weapons, and so on.

Furthermore, while Campbell criticizes Trump who paid little attention to the allies and partner countries and points out the importance of acting in concert with them, he also states that the US needs to help states in the Indo-Pacific develop "their own asymmetric capabilities to deter Chinese behavior". In addition, he mentions the danger of American reliance on a small number of facilities in East Asia that are vulnerable to possible Chinese attacks (typical examples are Yokosuka and Sasebo for the Navy, Kadena for the Air Force, and Futenma for the Marine Corps) and says that the US needs to work with other states to disperse U.S. forces across Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.

These are not new claims. But if materialized in total, they would considerably change the security environment in the Western Pacific. Until now, Japan has placed too much expectation on the US commitment to defend Japan. Japan has believed that, as long as the Japan-US relations are strong, the relations with other countries are manageable. Such naïveté may no longer be tenable.

The question that Japan has to face up to is "what kind of a society we want to build and what we should to do to protect such a society". We need to thrash it out across partisan lines and reach a consensus. If, as a result, it is concluded to continue the Japan-US alliance (I personally believe that it is necessary to continue the alliance), the force structure and weapon systems of the Self Defense Force will have to be changed to adapt to the changes in the force structure and weapon systems of the US Forces. If the conclusion is reached and endorsed by the public that Japan should have a nuclear deterrent of its own, possible deployment or possession of the mid-range missiles currently under development by the US could be on the agenda (deployment on submarines, as it would be difficult to deploy on the ground). However, I personally am not yet convinced that Japan would need nuclear weapons.

The Suga administration seems to be preoccupied with the issues of Covid-19 and the hosting of the Olympics. But we can lose no time on the issues of security outlined above. If Japan continues to have a passive attitude for diplomacy without doing anything, it will be reduced to a third-class country that will have no choice but to accept a fait accompli worked out by South Korea, Australia, India and so on in consultation with the US.

Akio Kawato is former Japanese ambassador to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan,
currently a columnist at Newsweek Japan
The English-Speaking Union of Japan